BooksA River Runs Through It:
The Site C Dam and Its Discontents

reviewed by Tom Sandborn

BooksDamming the Peace
The Hidden Costs of the Site C Dam
Wendy Holm, editor
James Lorimer and Co.                   Toronto
$22.95                                                  272 pp.

Breaching the Peace
The Site C Dam and a Valley’s
Stand Against Big Hydro
By Sarah Cox
On Point Press, an imprint of UBC Press
$24.95                                              295pp.

         “It is not too late to change course. The damage to the Peace River is not yet irreversible. Stopping Site C is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to all Canadians that the government takes reconciliation seriously.” –
Chief Lynette Tsakoza of the Prophet River First Nation.

“In conclusion, I would like to note the sad irony of the fact that we are writing to you on the date recognized by the United Nations as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.  As of this month, it is also one year since the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) called for an immediate halt to construction of Site. In making this recommendation, the Committee expressed concern not only about the threat of “irreversible destruction of Indigenous lands, and subsistence” but also about the significant barriers to justice for Indigenous peoples forced to defend their rights in court. CERD underlined the urgency of this recommendation by asking Canada provide a response within one year – that is, by the end of this month – on measures taken to implement this recommendation.

A decision to withdraw your government’s opposition to the requested injunction would signal a good faith effort to engage with the urgent recommendation of this expert human rights body. In contrast, continued efforts to minimize and deny a meaningful interpretation of Treaty rights only deepens the human rights violations that UN CERD has rightly concluded would be caused by the destruction of the Peace River Valley.
Alex Neve, Amnesty International in an open letter to BC Attorney General David Eby dated August 9, 2018 “

     The Peace River arises in northern BC, winds its way east and north through the Peace River Valley and the Rocky Mountains into Alberta, where it forms one of the largest inland deltas in the world as it joins the Athabasca. From the Peace- Athabasca delta it flows as the Slave to join the Mackenzie and thence to the Arctic Ocean. The proposed Site C dam on the Peace threatens to drown much of the remaining wild run of the river and much of the remaining traditional territories of Treaty 8 indigenous nations, flooding not only hunting and resource access sites but also destroying many ancestral burial sites.

      While much attention has been focused (and rightly so) recently on the Indigenous-led battle to prevent expansion of the Trudeau Crudo pipeline (the criminal enterprise formerly known as Kinder Morgan) another important struggle engaging both environmental sanity and indigenous rights has been underway. Two important new books provide useful context for the fight to prevent another dam on the Peace River, the notorious Site C. They are two very different works and read together they can serve as a useful primer for us all. Both are recommended reading for progressives this year. (For readers who want even more sense of what it is like to be on the imperiled Peace River, a third must read this year is Christopher Pollon’s lovely 2016 publication The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam.’)

     Sarah Cox’s Breaching the Peace takes on the cluster of urgent issues surrounding Site C by focusing on Arlene and Ken Boon, a settler couple slated to lose their family farm in the Peace River Valley to the dam. The Boons have been gradually radicalized and forced into alliances with local indigenous people in the fight to preserve the valley they all love. As portrayed by Cox, they are exemplars of the John Lennon line “ A working class hero is something to be,” as hard working and determined in their new roles as activists as they have had to be in their decades on the farm.  Cox also profiles indigenous leaders like Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation and Chief Roland Wilson of the West Moberly First Nation and others, but the author’s choice to highlight the story of the Boons means that indigenous resistance to Site C is somewhat, but not entirely, sidelined.

     The prose in this volume is lapidary, beautifully crafted to give the reader a keen sense of the unique beauties of the Peace as well as some of the personalities in the indigenous/settler alliance that is fighting to protect it. The focus on the Boons gives Cox’s book much of its coherence and unified tone, but it does leave parts of the Peace River story un or under told. The second book under review here (Damming the Peace: The Hidden Costs of the Site C Dam, a collection of essays and articles by many authors, edited by Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist who currently lives on Bowen Island who has won ten national journalism awards since 2002) is, predictably enough, a less elegant literary achievement than the Cox volume. But what it may lack in polish and fully unified tone it more than makes up in its breadth of scope and richness of content. Ranging from Guy Dauncey’s thoroughly researched review of energy alternatives that make the proposed output of Site C unnecessary to Joan Sawicki’s celebration of the unique microclimate of the Peace Valley that makes it some of the most valuable farming land in BC, and Andrew MacLeod’s eloquent piece on indigenous resistors, this is a book full of useful information.

     Andrew Nikiforuk contributes two important essays, one on the role of fracking in creating earth quakes and one on UNESCO’s findings about the downstream impacts of existing Peace River dams on human health and environmental damage, impacts that will be exacerbated if the new dam is allowed to go forward. And Holm, not content to carry the editorial responsibilities for the book, also contributes a thorough and disturbing study of the ways the new dam will degrade Peace River farmland and Canadian food security.

     And finally, in what is perhaps my favorite essay in the book, a rousing call to action from former Socred politician, broadcaster and fly fisherman Rafe Mair, now deceased, is issued. He makes the case for citizen activism and civil disobedience to block the twin disasters of Site C and Kinder Morgan eloquently and persuasively. 

     Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He was arrested while blocking the gates to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project in March of this year, and means to be active in opposing the Site C project as well. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at


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